“Terrorism”: A High-Stakes Convenience Label

“Terrorist” is an increasingly racialized label. In theory, a term can help to define a class of violence in order to combat it (for example, gun violence or domestic violence). In practice, the term “terrorism” is used to perpetuate structural violence against Muslims, not to mitigate any kind of violence.

Not only does the definition of terrorism vary widely across the globe, different agencies within the United States government have varying definitions. Media outlets are essentially free to use the term at their will. Terrorism is less structured than such a label implies. While it may be true that radicalized individuals or groups conspire to incite violence, violence has existed for all of human history, and labeling violent acts terrorism simply because they were committed by Muslims creates a false links between such acts, and perpetuates the fallacy of Islam as a violent religion and Islam as the link.

Those most affected by terrorism within the United States are the Muslims who are stereotyped and labeled terrorists simply because of their racialized religious identity. It is time to reevaluate the use of the terms terrorism and terrorist altogether and explain violent acts in new ways that will not instigate or perpetuate additional violence against those most harmed by a subjective and racist, and impractical label.

How “Terrorism” Protects Whites and Harms Muslims

In 1983, the US State Department defined terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.” This definition is broad, leaves a substantial amount of room for the government’s own discretion, and even differs from the definition used by the FBI. Notably, it also excludes state actions. Because of this ambiguity, terrorism is not a stagnant concept – it is employed by government actors as a strategic label to uphold orientalism in order to strengthen support for the U.S. government’s constant state of war, specifically the War on Terror.

President Bush signed the Patriot Act in October of 2001 in response the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. The act was designed to expand the power of the government to investigate acts they deemed terrorism. This law codified the government’s ability to, without due process, obtain private records, seize assets, and search property or person of anyone suspected to be engaged in “terrorist” activity. In the twelve months following the 9/11 attacks, according to a council on American-Islamic Relations report,

more that 60,000 individuals [were] affected by government actions of discrimination, interrogation, raids, arrests,detentions and institutional closures.

The subjective definition of the terrorism label precipitates that not only does the government have the power and discretion to determine whose behaviors constitute terrorist activity, they also and to arbitrarily revoke fundamental rights from whomever they consider to be posing that threat –- and they do. More recently, the Trump administration cast its thinly veiled Muslim Bans as a mechanism for perpetrating structural violence against Muslims -– restricting movement, separating families, and risking innocent lives, despite the true reality of that supposed “terrorism” threat being extremely small. The odds of being killed in an international terrorism attack in the United States are roughly the same as the odds of being struck by lightning. The number of people killed globally by international terrorism each year is comparable to the number of Americans who drown in their own bathtubs in the same span of time. Comparatively, epidemics of systemic and preventable violence, such as the traffic safety crisis in NYC, go unaddressed. One person dies every 38 hours in traffic in New York City, and yet the City will not make common sense changes to prevent the very real threat faced by its pedestrians.

The overreaction to extremely rare acts of violence that are labeled “terrorism,” both in the United States and globally, has contributed to far more deaths than the acts considered terrorism themselves have. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died as a result of the US Government’s counterterrorism strategies after 9/11 –- more than the number of fatalities caused by all global “terrorist attacks” in the last century. Refugees from Syria, Lybia, Yemen, and Somalia remain in danger because of this subjectively applied label and Trump’s essentially racist ban. Muslim communities around the country face surveillance, unjust imprisonment, and violence in part due to this label. White America has been primed to overlook legally sanctioned structural violence because the dominant framework has prescribed the belief that all Muslims are terrorists, and thus discrimination against Muslims is necessary and logical for the safety of the dominant group.

Selective Labeling

In reality, the government exercises its discretion by defining Muslims as the perpetrators of terrorism, accompanied by the portrayal of the victim of terrorism as only western white individuals. This was made especially clear through the media and government’s treatment of Dylan Roof, the white man who massacred nine African American men and women at a historically Black church in South Carolina in June of 2015. Despite the fact that Roof’s attack was meticulously planned and motivated by over white racism, he was indicted for federal hate crimes and firearms charges as opposed to domestic terrorism charges.

Roof’s actions were not attributed to his race or his religion and his friends were not subjected to interrogation and charged with conspiracy. His community of self-defined white supremacists was not threatened, intimidated, or entrapped by the FBI. White people were not banned from entering the United States based on his actions. His crime was not seen as politically motivated because the US government does not recognize racism as political, even when it is used as justification for overtly racist, violent actions and murder. His crime was not linked to other mass shootings as a systemic issue let alone mass shootings committed by white men, or other acts of violence and murder committed by white men against Black people.

There have been cases where white violent actors have been brought up on domestic terrorism charges, and yet white Americans have not been systemically surveiled and have not faced violence due to the actions of these white “terrorists.” Some advocates pushed for Dylan Roof to be called a “domestic terrorist.” Each time a mass shooter is identified as a white individual, there is a small chorus of voices advocating for the violent action to be labeled “terrorism.” Should we still be pushing to label any violent action terrorism when 1) it is clear at this point that the label has been constructed with the qualification of the perpetrator being a Muslim, and 2) Muslims living in the US, regardless of citizenship status, face structural violence because of the racist application of the term?

Putting the Label Behind Us

As academics and social justice advocates, abandoning the terms “terrorist” and “terrorism” altogether may help to reclaim the power the label has given the U.S. Government to harm to Muslims in the United States and abroad. The racist history of the label’s application has rendered the term “terrorism” useless to those who seek to identify the true causes of violence, and to work to mitigate them.

The field of Critical Terrorism Studies provides some insights as to how we can better understand the label moving forward. Critical Terrorism Studies (CTS) is concerned with the security of the individual as paramount to the security of the state, and explicates that the best way of obtaining security for the individual may be through critical analysis of what terrorism really is. Terrorism

is not a self-evident, exceptional category of political violence. Rather, it is a social construction – a linguistic term or label that is applied to certain acts [and not to others] through a range of political, legal, and academic processes.

Cara Cancelmo currently works as the Development Director at the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center. She plans to study sociology in graduate school.